By John J., 20-time traveler & 2-time Vacation Ambassador from Tempe, AZ
International group travel may whisk you away to exotic places or cultures, but it is unlikely you will encounter an indigenous group more exotic than your American group travelers.
They cast a misleading appearance, donned in their Columbia, REI, or LL Bean uniforms. But they are diverse in most other respects. They express rainbows of complicated national and ethnic backgrounds, some recently enhanced by the DNA interrogations of Nat Geo, Ancestry, or 23 and Me. Their religious backgrounds are similarly complex, rendered more so by a lifetime of existential experiences in the trenches of Real Life Complexity. Their educational levels and lifelong learning histories are unmatched by few in history, and many spent their working lives in jobs or occupational specialties which did not exist when they were born, breaking boundaries and barriers few even knew about. Many were warriors on the front lines of no-fault divorce, so they’ve created gender-bending and blended family arrangements on all sides of the gender divide, with innovation that puts Walt Disney to shame. They possess unprecedented cognitive and linguistic competencies, developed during decades of global and occupational contacts. (The English language has added more words than any other over many decades.) Many have traveled more than most Americans, and possess actual, latent, or inchoate foreign language skills.
These group travelers share the desire to explore beyond the boundaries of their selves, histories, and local communities. They are curious to extend their knowledge and emotional experiences of the larger world, to interrogate the horizons of culture, nature, music, history, archeology, ornithology, and art. At each individual level and capacity they seek to cultivate the mature virtues of wisdom: empathy, compassion, love.
These sage Americanos have long mastered the nuances of public and private civility. With a friendly demeanor they greet new acquaintances with small talk, followed by the gender-appropriate default vernacular: for women, fashion, recently-read books, or cooking; for men, sports, cars, or sports. They delay mentioning children and grandchildren, knowing that for this age cohort such topics potentially open doors to personal tragedies or failures. These are only the opening gambits. The personal topics will come later, when public fronts are lowered, and the mutual excavation of the common foundations show that the next step can be taken.
Group travelers seek to “know the world,” and sharing experiences with fellow traveling companions is a good way to expand one’s perspective. Unexpected things happen during one’s journey. A trip may begin with a curiosity to learn about another culture, but that process leads back to reflections on one’s own culture, with new questions about why they do the things they do, and why we do the things we do. We didn’t begin with ideas to reflect on family structure, the meanings of holidays, education, prisons, adoption policy, marriage laws, business practices, or race, sex, and class. But travel confronts us with these and many other issues. We didn’t begin with ideas to compare the flora and fauna of other places with home, but that is what happens, and we return home with a new commitment to pay more attention to our own place and domicile. We don’t start out to compare religions, spiritual practices, or belief systems, but visiting other places casts these into an unexpected and unanticipated relief. We may begin with curiosities about art, dance, architecture, or music, but then discover that our entire perspective on beauty and aesthetics has been altered in ways we could not have anticipated. We thought beauty was a property of objects or settings, but discover it is the definitive property of the cosmos. And ourselves. We begin to learn about other places, but international travel mysteriously loops back upon the self, and eventually produces life-affirming changes and wisdom.